Police officers who beat and insulted journalists covering a protest this week will be removed from their positions, Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry has said.
The Interior Ministry press secretary told VOA’s Azerbaijan Service on Thursday that officers involved in the incident will be removed “due to impolite behavior especially against Fatima Movlamli.”
Movlamli, a reporter for the news website Azadliq, and Sevinj Sadigova were detained on Tuesday and a third journalist, Teymur Kerimov said on Facebook that police prevented him from broadcasting live.
In a Facebook post about her arrest, Movlamli said police told her she was not considered a journalist under a newly enacted media law and so could not film.
The journalists were covering a protest by families of soldiers killed during the conflict with Armenia in 2020. “The families want authorities to give their sons an official “martyr” status. The status recognizes the actions of those killed and in some cases offer benefits to relatives.
Sadigova, a reporter for the news website Azel.tv, told VOA’s Azerbaijani Service that police detained and physically assaulted her and Movlamli.
“They insulted and beat us,” Sadigova said, adding that police took the journalists to the Sabail district police station before moving them to the main Baku police department.
Movlamli said they were forced into police cars, kicked and insulted.
In her social media post, Movlamli said that the journalists complained to deputy police chief Vugar Hidayat and that they would request security camera footage of the incident and file a complaint.
Elshad Hajiyev, press secretary for the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry which oversees police, said, “Unlawful action is unacceptable, including those against journalists.”
“With regard to the unpleasant incident that took place, a reprimand action has been taken with known results,” Hajiyev told VOA.
Media rights groups criticized the police response and said they were troubled by the police citing the new law.
Several journalists and human rights organizations voiced concern late last year that the new media law could result in further restrictions.
Critics say it could allow the government to determine who is officially recognized as a journalist.
Anar Mammadli, a human rights defender best known in Azerbaijan for promoting independent election monitoring, said police should not prevent the media from working.
“I would like to note with regret that the police referred to the newly adopted media law in this incident. Allegedly, these people are not journalists,” Mammadli told VOA.
“Any person can film any protest, rally, or public event taking place in a public setting. Police intervention is unacceptable,” he said.
Mammadli said he believes that beating reporters, seizing equipment or otherwise interfering in newsgathering can all be seen as acts of violence.
“These issues must be addressed immediately,” he said.
Media and legal expert Khalid Agaliyev believes journalists should have special protections.
“Those who interfere with their professional activities are criminally liable,” Agaliyev said. “It is the government’s responsibility under both national law and international treaties to investigate this incident as soon as possible and to punish the perpetrators.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also called on the Azerbaijani government to investigate what it described as “allegations of outrageous police mistreatment.”
“Journalists from pro-government and critical outlets alike must be free to cover demonstrations without fear of arbitrary detention and police brutality,” said CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Gulnoza Said.
Azerbaijan has previously defended the new law.
Aydin Mirzazade, a member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, dismissed concerns in December, saying, “I think that the law will regulate relations between the media and state and media and society as a whole.”
Azerbaijan has a poor record for free expression, and ranks 167 out of 180 countries, where 1 is freest, on the World Press Freedom Index. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says authorities harass and jail independent or critical journalists.
At least two journalists are currently detained in the country, including Sadigova’s husband Afghan Sadygov, who founded Azel.tv. Sadygov was imprisoned on accusations of extortion but rights groups believe the charges are in retaliation for his reporting.
This story originated in VOA’s Azerbaijan Service. Aziza Goyushzade contributed.